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11th May 2017

Irish exam coach reveals the sentence he hates seeing written in exams

Conor Heneghan

Do you have a Leaving Cert or Junior Cert student cramming away upstairs?

Even the best laid plans have a habit of going awry and despite all the effort school and college students throughout Ireland are putting in ahead of exams right now, there’s a chance that the exam itself might not proceed along expected lines.

Although time management is one of the most important things to consider in an exam, for example, many students find themselves running out of it and, worse still, according to David Cosgrave, a lecturer in the business school at the University of Limerick, feel the need to apologise for it.

A leading exam coach, David has been setting and correcting exams at third level for almost a decade and says that he has lost count of the number of times he has seen the line ‘Sorry, I ran out of time’ (often with a smiley face added in for good measure) scribbled at the end of a rushed exam answer.

David says he hates the sight of the sentence for two reasons.

First, David says, it means that a student’s last action in an exam was to write that they ran out of time (and draw a smiley face), rather than focusing on providing one more meaningful sentence that they could have received marks for.

What’s the harm in one sentence?

Depending on the grading scheme for that question, another sentence could have been the difference between grades. Harsh, but that’s the reality. David says he has never known of an examiner who has awarded marks for a smiley face. Nor should they.

The second reason he hates seeing the sentence at the end of an exam answer is part of a much wider problem; time management. Students often run out of time in an exam.


The simple answer is that students do not have a time management plan going into the exam. The time limit is part of the control settings. The examiner doesn’t care that you ran out of time. In fact, the examiner set the time limit for the exam. Think about that.

Does the following example sound familiar?

You are in an exam, head down, writing as much as you can on your second question out of three, when all of a sudden, the exam invigilator says that there are ten minutes left. Panic.

You have yet to write a single word for question three. You rush through a poorly thought out attempt to answer question three and leave the exam disappointed, hoping that the examiner will look favourably on your first two questions.

If this sounds like someone you know, then you might want to share some of David’s tips on time management below:

Allocate 10 minutes to read the exam paper thoroughly.

This should help overcome mistake number one, not answering the question asked.

Spend a further five minutes prioritising your questions

You should prioritise the questions you feel you can provide the most comprehensive answers to and start accordingly. This will help your confidence levels within the exam. It should also give you the best chance at demonstrating your competency.

Divide the remaining allocated time based on the division of marks

For example, in a two hour exam, if you are required to answer three questions and all questions carry equal marks; then you should allocate 35 minutes per question (after reading the paper and prioritising questions).

Once the time you have allocated for each question has elapsed it is usually beneficial to move on. The law of diminishing returns applies. You have likely given all the information you can on the topic. Put bluntly; if you haven’t been able to get the key information across after 35 minutes then it is unlikely that you ever will. Move on.

Do not attempt unnecessary questions

If you are asked to do three questions, then only do three questions; your best three. Examiners don’t like correcting extra answers especially if they are bad. They are human too. Sometimes even with a good time management plan in place, students can struggle for time on their final question. If this happens, revert to bullet points and address the key information asked in the question.